The Most Embarrassing Moment while I Speaking Chinese
National Taiwan Normal University-Cesar Alas

 We always go through many difficulties when learning a new language. We have to dedicate a lot of time to first understand the logic of the language (if it has) and learn the vocabulary that serves as the base where the rest will be built on. I remember that during the first year we were taught basic things in Chinese like asking for directions, ordering food or school basic dialogues. When asking for directions, there is always the polite way of requesting information from others. My Chinese teacher taught me to first say 請問 (Qǐngwèn) which  is compound of the words “please” and “ask” but in this case means “excuse me”, when asking for something.For example; 請問,公共汽在哪裡Qǐngwèn, Gōnggòng qìchē zhàn zài nǎlǐ (Excuse me, where is the bus station?). 

Our Chinese teacher always told us to go and practice our Chinese with the locals. Every time we went to night markets (quite famous here in Taipei), we tried our new words with the vendors on the street. Thus, as the good student and polite person I am, I always used the phrase請問, before asking for prices or any other detail about the products I wanted to buy. To my surprise, every time I used “that” phrase they looked at me on a funny way. I used to tell myself “I am a foreigner, and maybe I have a weird accent”. After noticing the same behavior in repeatedly occasions, I started to wonder if that was too formal to be used on the streets. When I asked my other classmates at the graduate institute of International Human Resource Development, they told me that it’s a commonly used phrase. I told them my inexplicable experiences with the vendors on the street and the front desk lady at the dormitory in my school who I also tried that phrase with.  One of my classmates explained me again how careful we need to be with the tones we use in mandarin.  One word with different tones may have different meanings. In addition to this, the context of a word, as in many other languages, could mean something different too. This classmate asked me to describe him the scenario on which these incidents had happened to me with that famous phrase. Then I told him exactly the same thing, that every time I used that expression “請問” the people would stare at me and some of them would even laugh; this, by the way, sometimes stopped me from asking anything else. He asked me to say it exactly the same way I had used it before. When I said it, he couldn’t stop laughing. I started to feel a little bit irritated and, to an extent, confused about the whole situation. After he was able to put himself together, he told me (with a weird smile on his face) that I was using that word incorrectly. Basically what I had asked the vendors on the street and that lady in my dormitory was 請吻 (Qǐng wěn). As you can notice, the second word “wěn” has a different tone from “wèn”; therefore it has a whole different meaning. When it comes to writing, there is not much room for mistakes because the words have different characters (wèn) and (wěn). I happened to know that word and instead of getting angry about it I laughed all loud as well. To make it short, means “please” but in this case means “kiss”; so it basically means “kiss me”.  I couldn’t believe I had been asking all these people for a kiss the whole time. I realized that their reaction simply matched my strange request. With this, I learned that we need to be careful with what we say; especially in Chinese where we really need to mind the variation of tones every word has. On the other hand, with all the experiences we find on our way to learning a new language we should enjoy it and laugh about our mistakes…but most importantly, correct them as soon as possible!